Friday, July 15, 2016

A Murky "Midnight Special"

I've been at a loss as to how to write about "Midnight Special" because I haven't been able to adequately sort out my feelings towards it.  Usually I don't read reviews until I've written up something myself, but this time I went looking for them, trying to find some help in parsing my reaction to the film.  To be blunt, my feelings are very mixed, and I think that the film is not what it could be.  But I'm not sure if my disappointment is because of the film's weaknesses or because "Midnight Special" doesn't align with what I expected from a Jeff Nichols film.

"Midnight Special" opens to the sound of an Amber Alert, warning that an eight-year-old boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), has been kidnapped by a man named Roy (Michael Shannon).  The report does not mention that Roy is Alton's father, and they're on the run from a doomsday cult that looks to Alton as a messiah figure.  Gradually, we learn that Alton is at the center of strange phenomena that allows him to intercept wireless transmissions and makes him very sensitive to daylight, among other things.  Alton is being drawn to a particular place that he has to reach by a particular time, so Roy enlists help from his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Alton's mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) to get them there.  Meanwhile, the FBI is investigating the disappearance, lead by Agent Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), and members of the cult are also on the move, desperate to get Alton back.

"Midnight Special" has all the subtle, engrossing family drama I've come to expect from Jeff Nichols, but this time it's in the context of a genre film narrative.  Some of Nichols' earlier works have had genre elements, like the doomsday visions in "Take Shelter" and the fairy tale overtones in "Mud," but it quickly becomes apparent in "Midnight Special" that Alton's powers, whether supernatural or some product of natural phenomena, are to be taken at face value.  So despite remaining very grounded and very light on special effects, the story can't get away from a lot of old, familiar genre movie tropes that don't play as well as they used to.  And then there's the ending, which some viewers found problematic but I really liked.  I just thought it belonged to an entirely different movie.

The first half of the film is the strongest, where the viewer is still piecing together what's going on, and getting to know all the various players.  We get to see the situation unfold from multiple points of view, and there's a nice ambiguity as to what everyone's intentions are.  I especially enjoyed Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver's characters, who act as audience stand-ins to an extent, trying to work out the mysteries around Alton.  And this may be Michael Shannon's best good guy performance, as a father way in over his head trying to reconcile with a constantly changing situation.  Alton's condition can be read as a metaphor for many things, and some of the film's best scenes are of Roy and Alton trying to offer each other reassurances, and Roy and Sara trying to prepare for the worst.  The relationships are handled so well, it's very easy to become invested in what happens to everyone.

But after all that careful foundation-laying, the second half of the film ends up playing out like a pretty typical action and chase film.  The ending is not ambiguous in the least, which undercuts a lot of the tension and a lot of the melodrama.  Many of the characters feel shortchanged, and some simply drop out of the narrative completely.  Nichols does a great job going in the direction he chooses, especially subverting some of the old clichés, and "Midnight Special" works decently well as a genre piece.  However, the characters and their relationships simply aren't as well served by the approach as they could have been if this were a much more subdued, small-scale film focused more tightly on Roy and Alton.  I think it might have also worked better as a bigger, blunter, more typical mainstream picture that was more concerned with the action and thrills.  I suspect that trying to stick both together just left the picture a muddle.

I think "Midnight Special" is worth seeing if you're a fan of Jeff Nichols or Michael Shannon, but I'm not sure if I'd recommend it to anyone else.  It's pieces are wonderful, but on the whole I found it unsatisfying.  I feel a little guilty thinking that, because I enjoy this director's work and I applaud the guts it took to pursue this kind of material so whole-heartedly.  Ultimately, however, it just never came together quite right.


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